A recent case from Christchurch highlights the danger of copying aspects of a competitor’s product.
Tidd Ross Todd and Steelbro both manufacture sideloading trailers used for transporting empty 20 foot and 40 foot shipping containers. In the early to mid-1990s, TRT began developing a sideloading trailer which could load and unload two 20 foot containers independently. Previous trailers could handle individual 20 or 40 foot containers, or two 20 foot containers secured together, so that they effectively formed a 40 foot container. This innovative design was called the TRT triple, and TRT was very successful in marketing and selling the product as it represented a significant advance on the existing technology.
In 2000, TRT and Steelbro discussed the possibility of Steelbro selling TRT triples in New Zealand and overseas. During this process, TRT supplied Steelbro with specifications, a drawing and a brochure.
While the negotiations came to nothing, Steelbro later released the SB121, which was a sideloading trailer with similar features to the TRT triple. Steelbro asserted that its sidelifter reflected its own independent design, testing and manufacturing process. TRT alleged that the SB121 infringed its copyright in the TRT triple.
Arguments of the parties
Steelbro argued that similarities between the two units related to the overall concept, or were a natural consequence of design constraints (functional or regulatory).
However, TRT’s expert witness found that Steelbro had probably used the TRT triple as the starting point for its project rather than independently designing the SB121. This was based on a lack of clear evidence of a logical progression of ideas and sketches, which would be expected for a project of that magnitude.
The court found in favour of TRT.
As the judge noted, the idea of a low storing crane which makes a sidelifter more versatile does not attract copyright. TRT’s expression of that idea is, however, protected by copyright. In the present case Steelbro reproduced a number of the elements which TRT used to put its idea into effect, and went beyond using the simple idea of incorporating a central folding crane into a sidelifter.
In examining whether copying has taken place, the court will begin by looking at similarities between the products and whether the defendant has had access to the plaintiff’s product.
Copyright law does not give an inventor a monopoly over their idea, no matter how novel that idea is. Patents can be used to protect such ideas, although this requires on full disclosure of the idea being made in the patent application and depends on registration before the idea is disclosed to any third party.
Copyright cases are, by their nature, very fact dependent. The key lessons from the case are:
This publication is necessarily brief and general in nature. You should seek professional advice before taking any action in relation to the matters dealt with in this publication.